'Double first-class' universities plan needs careful thought

Updated: 2017-11-03

  Since 2015, the Chinese government has indicated it wants a number of universities to reach "double first-class" status by 2050 -- meaning to create world-class universities supporting first-class disciplines.

  On September 21, the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, and the National Development and Reform Commission finally released their list of the 42 universities and 465 disciplines slated for additional support.

  Many mainland Chinese students seek higher education overseas, so this ambitious plan is meant to try and keep more of them on home soil. More importantly, however, is the wish to become a global educational superpower.

  However, is throwing money at already fairly well-resourced universities in affluent regions the way to achieve this? Eight of the privileged universities are located in Beijing, four more in Shanghai, with a smattering of additional institutions predominantly found on the east coast and in major urban centers.

  None of the preferred institutions are located in provinces and regions struggling economically to keep up with China's rapid development. Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Jiangxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, Shanxi, and Tibet will all be missing out on the list of sponsored universities, although there are universities in these areas on the list of sponsored disciplines. Potentially, this could lead to an even larger divide between the richest and poorest communities.

  Boosting the educational attainment of China's domestic students and the research prowess of its universities are laudable goals, but this takes more than money.

  Visiting foreign scientists looking around some of the country's top universities, for example, often come across sophisticated equipment being under-utilized compared to similar equipment at their home institutions, frequently at higher-ranked but more poorly resourced universities abroad.

  China has seen similarly ambitious drives to climb the world’s research rankings, such as in the 1990s, specifically through the 211 and 985 programs. Results were mixed, given that only two of its top universities -- Peking and Tsinghua in Beijing -- feature consistently among the world’s top-ranked institutions, although Shanghai's Fudan and Jiaotong universities are also making rapid strides.

  This, therefore, begs the question whether the "double first-class" initiative is realistic in the face of ever increasing international pressure. Although "world class" is ill-defined, let us assume that this implies a global ranking among the top-200 institutions.

  Depending on one’s favorite ranking list, there are about seven Chinese institutions that can currently call themselves world-class. Does the government really expect that 35 of the top universities in other top nations worldwide will simply yield and let Chinese universities take over? It's a safe bet to assume the competition will fight their corner tooth and nail!

  With sustained government support, it is likely that the Chinese higher education system will manage to secure more seats at the top table, but real progress requires far more than just financial incentives.

  In 2011, the World Bank released a study entitled "The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world class research universities." Its authors concluded that academic talent and an inquisitive nature -- among both faculty members and students -- financial resources, adequate facilities, unrestrained scientific enquiry, and academic freedom all had to be present from the start.

  And this is where some of the current tension occurs. Speaking from a Western perspective, part of the problem at student level is the approach to teaching in the pre-university educational system. This is predominantly based on the Confucian system, where the teacher is always right.

  Needless to say, this stifles innovation and suppresses students' inquisitive minds. I have spent the past eight years teaching at Peking University. This experience has shown me that it takes even good students a long time to shed the Confucian harness to confidently discuss their opinions with their professors.

  Research at Chinese universities is often utilitarian. By contrast, its overseas competitors more frequently operate from a purely inquisitive, bottom-up approach. By all current measures, that approach -- perhaps with some degree of guidance driven by the availability of research funds -- appears quite productive and successful in achieving world-class status.

  In the current climate of ambitious higher education reform, this seems like an opportune time to completely rethink China's approach to higher education to make it truly competitive at the international level. There clearly is no shortage of high-level ambition and talented people. We will have to wait and see how this is converted into practical achievements.

  Richard de Grijs is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:

  http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/RicharddeGrijs.htm

  Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

  Source: China.org.cn

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